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With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don't Have To Choose One Religion


If you have a parent who was Italian, say, or another who's Korean, you might identify as half Italian and half Korean. For interfaith families though, choosing between religions to pass on to their children can be a difficult decision. But Rami Ayyub reports, some parents are embracing a different strategy - choose both.

RAMI AYYUB, BYLINE: It's early Sunday morning and a group of families are finally filing into a high school cafeteria. Most of them have one parent who's Jewish and another who's Christian, and instead of church or synagogue, they come here. Trading church pews for folding chairs is nothing new, but just down the hall, a new project is taking hold.

DAVID BIGGE: Who doesn't have their own Bible yet?

AYYUB: That's David Bigge (ph). He's the Hebrew teacher at the Interfaith Families Project Sunday School in Kensington, Md.

BIGGE: OK, everyone have a seat.

AYYUB: The Sunday school mixes Bible study with Jewish history and Hebrew lessons, helping families embrace both religions and answer tough questions from their kids.

SUZANNE ISAACS: When our daughter was in kindergarten, she came home and started asking about religion. And we were kind of shocked. We didn't know what to do.

AYYUB: That's Suzanne Isaacs (ph). Her daughter is a first grader in the Sunday school.

ISAACS: She said well, why don't we go to church and why don't we go to synagogue? And when I tried to explain the differences between the religions, she said yeah, I don't think you've got it right. I feel like I should ask somebody else.

AYYUB: For the kids, showing them a community of other interfaith children helps make what could be a difficult identity issue more tangible. Here's second-grade teacher Jill Bernstein.

JILL BERNSTEIN: In terms of identity, if you ask them what religion they are, they'll say I'm Jewish and Christian, as if it's a really easy answer and a really obvious choice.

AYYUB: It might be confusing or even seem impossible that someone can be two religions. But the group's director, Beth McCracken-Harness, says their program is more about sharing stories and histories and letting the kids make their own decisions.

BETH MCCRACKEN-HARNESS: We don't tell the kids what they need to think. We say Christians believe this, Jews believe this. We're not melding both religions. We're just helping them to understand both. And a lot of the kids end up saying that they're both.

AYYUB: Like most of the other interfaith youth programs that have emerged, the Interfaith Families Project is a 501(c)(3) - not formally tied to any religious institution.

SUSAN KATZ MILLER: For most traditional religious institutions, most traditional clergy, there has been an assumption that it is better for the children to choose one religion.

AYYUB: That's Susan Katz Miller. She's author of "Being Both," a book about raising children in interfaith families. She says the shift away from traditional institutions represents a growing trend among young people in America. A Pew Research Center survey from last year found that almost 40 percent of young couples are interfaith. And it's not unique to Jewish and Christian families.

YAHYA HENDI: I'm Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain of Georgetown University.

AYYUB: Hendi says there's a growing desire among Muslim-Christian and Muslim-Jewish families for interfaith education programs. But...

HENDI: The problem is lack of interreligious institutions that serve that kind of community. In many mosques there is no interest. But do I hear of the desire? Yes. I hear it almost every month of someone saying why don't we have that?

AYYUB: Back at the Sunday school, the group's reverend, Julia Jarvis, says they have begun to explore including Muslim interfaith families by bringing in Muslim speakers and meeting with mosques.

JULIA JARVIS: My hope and dream is maybe in 20 years, the third door of the Abrahamic faith will open and we will have the ability to integrate the Quran into our Sunday school classrooms.

AYYUB: Jarvis hopes once this third door opens, practicing more than one religion will become more commonplace and less of a taboo. For NPR News, I'm Rami Ayyub. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rami Ayyub

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